Mourning Etiquette and Mourning Rules

The time immediately following the death of a loved one was sometimes so busy, there was little time for mourning. People needed to be notified of the death, funeral, and interment arrangements needed to be handled, and the arrival of relatives far and wide often resulted in time spent entertaining rather than mourning. But no matter how busy or how sad a person felt, by the beginning of the nineteenth century mourning was complex and mourning etiquette needed to be observed.

mourning etiquette and widow weeds

Widow weeds. Public domain.

Of course, this did not mean that people were to wear black at the slightest hint of bereavement. Neither were they to show an utter disregard on the death of a loved one. They were also not to acknowledge the departure of a loved by only wearing only a band of crape (now more frequently spelled crepe) around the arm, as that was a mark of mourning adopted by servants and certainly not an appropriate outward sign of respect by close relatives for the memory of a dear departed loved one.

There were other mourning etiquette rules that needed to observed. For instance, there was certain etiquette involved with a widow grieving for her spouse, and there were certainly many widows who lost their husbands, such as Eliza de Feuillide, Frances Nelson, or Juliette Récamier. This level of mourning was said to be the deepest, and according to some people, it also served to shield and protect a widow from what would otherwise be considered “very trying.” Widows were instructed to wear black, and the black was to be of a dead hue rather than a lively black. Anything a widow wore was also to be hidden underneath crape, which was a stiff, scratchy silk fabric that had an unusual crimped appearance produced by heat. In the late 1800s, rainproof crape was also sometimes worn as a substitute for expensive crape because it was durable and “economical.”

Frances “Fanny” Nelson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mourning lasted for a year and involved “a severe plainness, that [was] utterly antagonistic to the wearing of superfluous trimming and all kinds of shining and dangling things.”[1] The only allowable ornamentation in deep mourning was jet. (If you’re unfamiliar with jet, click here to learn more.) No fur was worn either, and no matter how young a widow was, she could not wear a hat. Instead, deep mourning required widows to wear bonnets made from black crape consisting of a widow’s cap tacked inside it, the small, close-fitting shape, with a long crape veil hanging at the back; and a shorter one worn over the face.

Mourning broach from the eighteenth century created from jet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There were several other stages of mourning and mourning etiquette for a widow to follow. The second mourning stage lasted from six to nine months and allowed the cap to be left off. At this stage crape no longer covered the dress, but was in tucks instead. Appropriate dress included silk, trimmed with crape, lace collars and cuffs, and, if desired, a short veil. The remaining months — three to six months — of the second year allowed for gray, violet or white colors to be worn.

At the end of the second year, mourning could entirely be done away with, although most people considered it more appropriate to wear half mourning — black and white — for a least six months longer. Elderly mourners sometimes continued to wear black for the remainder of their lives (something that Queen Victoria did), only giving it up when there was some solitary event, such as a wedding for a child. Even though elderly widows might wear black, they did not wear crape. Instead they wore other materials, such “as Victoria cords, Janus cords, cashmere, and so on.”[2] As men and everyone else supposedly suffered less, a man’s mourning outfit was simple: dark suit, black gloves, and hatbands.

There were also other levels of mourning depending upon who died, and they included:

  • Mourning for parents lasted one year — Six months in crape trimmings, three in plain black, and three in half-mourning. Additionally, society activities would be given up for at least three months, although it was more likely they would be given up for nine months.
  • Mourning for grandparents lasted nine months — The first mourning (crape) was worn for three months; second mourning, black without crape, also worn for three months; and half-mourning for three more months. Additionally, society activities would be given up for three months.
  • Mourning for siblings lasted six months — Crape for three months, plain black for two months, and half mourning for one month. Additionally, society activities would be given up for three months.
  • Mourning for aunts, uncles, nephews, and nieces lasted three months — No crape, but plain black fabric with jet ornaments.
  • Mourning for great aunts and great uncles lasted two months — Mourning was conducted without crape.
  • Mourning for first cousins lasted six weeks — Three weeks was half mourning.
mourning etiquette - gentleman in mourning

Gentleman in mourning with crape on his hat. Public domain.

Other mourning etiquette rules, included the following:

  • The deceased was to be dressed simply and flowers were to be used sparingly.
  • Widows were not supposed to go into society for at least a year.
  • Flowers were to be sent to the house of mourning and to funerals in testimony of “sincere regret.”
  • About a week after the funeral, over the next month friends were expected to call on the bereaved family.
  • Notes of condolences were always acceptable at any time.
  • Although not a fast rule, it was considered best to wear mourning when making the first call after a bereavement of a friend, because it implied sympathy for those who were suffering.
  • Servants did not usually mourn except for members of the household in which they were living, and, then, usually only for the heads of the house, not for the junior members.
  • Crape was never to be worn by ladies or gentlemen above the elbow or on the sleeve of ulsters and greatcoats. It was considered “very vulgar” to do so.
  • People in mourning were supposed to leave cards decorated with black borders, when they visited people who were not at home.
  • When in mourning, a mourner was to use black or violet ink, black sealing wax, and black edged paper and envelopes, and the width of the border was “regulated the degrees of mourning according to the degree of relationship.”[3]
  • After mourning and before returning to society, it was considered proper to leave cards with friends, relations, and acquaintances. This signified to them that the mourner was able, ready, and willing to pay and receive calls and visits. It also indicated that the mourners temporary or long seclusion had reached its end and that the person’s mourning period was over.

The widow, Queen Victoria. Courtesy of British Museum.


  • [1] Arthur’s Home Magazine, Volume 53, 1885, p. 630.
  • [2] Collier’s Cyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information, 1882, p. 629.
  • [3] The Ladies’ Garland, Volumes 1-4, 1825, p. 159.

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